Image courtesy of Nick Atkins.

Artist Nick Atkins turns his climate anxiety into art

He uses his fantastical work to cope with society's abuse of the earth and inspire action.

by Paige Silveria
14 November 2019, 8:17pm

Image courtesy of Nick Atkins.

New York-based artist Nick Atkins’ latest exhibition Nocturne is comprised of new paintings, sculptures and a giant, bizarre, color-coordinated shrine. The show, which is on display at Entrance in New York, centers around an ongoing sci-fi fantasy narrative called "Hanji Party." It follows the adventures of its main character, Harp, and his alter-ego/imaginary friend, Party Fanatic, both which serve as a kind of coping mechanism for Atkins’ feelings of hopelessness concerning society’s environmental misdeeds.

“I use Harp’s world as a means to explain some of the themes going on in my life and as inspiration for art, painting, music and sculpture,” explains Atkins. “The majority of it comes from an ache concerning our connection to the Earth and what we’re doing to it — and I know I’m a part of this myself; I can barely get myself to recycle.”

With each exhibition Atkins parcels out a new chapter from the long Hanji saga. “I’m framing these shows like episodes so they have a clear meaning: beginning, middle and end, in a way... My drawings become storyboards for this pretend TV show.” In addition to focusing on collective society’s shameful mistreatment of Mother Earth, other themes in the developing narrative are derived from an assortment of the artist’s personal experiences, like the trauma of working with survivors in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, as well as a time-honored struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.

Art made from fruit by Nick Atkins

But instead of harping on the negatives, Atkins hopes to keep things upbeat and bring about some communal pleasure with his work: “The main thing that I think I can do is to take some of that uncomfortableness and try and turn it into some of the art. That impact, if it’s positive, is really all I can do. I want to try to expel some joy where old people or young people at the show say, ‘Hey, I loved that so much.’ I’m just trying to turn all of these negative feelings around.”

i-D caught up with Atkins to learn more about "Hanji Party" and his latest exhibition.

Give me a little background on your work. You began with videos?
I filmed a lot of reality stuff before anyone was really doing it — before Instagram was popping. I’d cut them up into these clips (seen here on his Vimeo page, TVTV). I felt super disconnected and it was how to express myself through video, through my life. I was doing a lot of traveling and going to Haiti a lot. Now that kind of video work is super common practice; people enjoy watching other people’s lives. But seven years ago, to show exactly what you were doing and where was rare. Especially for someone like me who fancied themselves secretive or some sort of pseudo-criminal.

How did you transition into making the work you do now, which is so different?
After doing that for a long time, I thought that the next phase of what people were going to want to see was people creating their own fantasy. From all this documenting and my experiences in Haiti and just life shit, like drugs, and problems, this other narrative arose, this science fiction autobiographical fantasy that I call "Hanji Party."

Art made from fruit by Nick Atkins

What is "Hanji Party" exactly?
It’s this narrative centered around this young semi-politician called Harp and this imaginary friend of his called Party Fanatic, a creature that only he can see and interact with. Harp’s a representative of one of very few tribes of people that are left on Earth in this post-apocalyptic future. Every year they gather to celebrate their existence on the planet with something called a Hanji Party. Each of the different tribes is represented by a different color; Harp’s tribe is blue. Following the catastrophic event, the president had taken advantage of the opportunity to start fresh as a humanity and make everything functional. He melted down all the guns in the world and reconnected everyone back to nature — and this is what they’re celebrating essentially.

Who are the bad guys?
I always wondered what all of these genetically modified Monsanto organisms/plants that humans have created would eventually turn into. Instead of aliens or machines, it’s like if Terminator is this horrific monster that’s a mutated amalgamation of all of these plants coming to seek revenge for what humans have done to nature. When I was in Haiti, the farmers would burn Monsanto seeds. These big genetically-modified seed companies would send them seeds and say, “Hey go ahead. Use these.” But the seeds were genetically locked. And these people were so poor. And they would have to rebuy them every year because they would die every year. They couldn’t be replanted. They made all of these modifications for money. So farmers would burn them. They’d attack the bags of seeds. That act of retaliation really stuck in my mind.

How does this story translate back into your visual art?
I use Harp’s world as a means to explain some of the themes going on in my life and as inspiration for art, painting, music and sculpture. My drawings become storyboards for this pretend TV show. I would look at all of these “Making of” books about movies — “Making of Alien,” or whatever. There’s all this art that goes into their creation; I would emulate that to render all these different aspects — mostly as inspiration, but also to expand this idea. The ultimate goal would be to film this show, but even if I didn’t, the art from behind the scenes is almost more important than if I ever actually made the film.

Art made from fruit by Nick Atkins

Where did your connection to Haiti come from?
In the 50s, my grandfather’s first wife remarried a Mellon — of Carnegie Mellon — and they went and started this hospital in Haiti. (They were very cool people.) It’s not my direct family, but we’re so close still. And ever since I was really young, when I got in trouble, my mom would send me there to take a good look at what I had, to try to get me to understand more about the world I was living in. I’d be around doctors and artists all day. So in 2009 I left NYC after having lived here for almost 10 years. I had to get out. I did this like geographical: “Oh the city’s killing me. I can’t do it.” And blamed a lot of my problems on New York City. During this time I traveled around and would go to Haiti often and just kind of live. At this point I understood a little bit more about art and in order to be useful and to engage with the community there, I’d paint these murals with my cousin and kids from the neighborhood.

That was right around the earthquake right?
Yeah there was that massive earthquake in 2010 and like 250,000 people died. The whole fucking island was crushed. Our hospital was the closest one outside of Port Au Prince, which was the epicenter of the devastation. It got flooded with so many people day after day. We got a grant from the UN to take care of the people, because the population in this tiny rural area had just blown up and there were no jobs, no infrastructure. No one knew what to do. I arrived the month following the disaster.

I had a ticket to Haiti to land on the day of the earthquake but for some reason I didn’t go. That was a weird one — which I forgot about until now. So I just lived there for three years. I implemented different grants. It was crazy. We set up this beautiful amazing prosthetic center because all of this shit fell on people and crunched them all up. A lot of them were missing limbs or had to relearn how to walk. And I worked with patients in a clinic to craft as therapy. You know the number one export from Haiti has been art for a long time. It always impressed and affected me so much, seeing all of these people making this amazing artwork with very little. They wake up and make art and sell it; it’s their life; that’s their career.

What eventually brought you back to the States?
My time in Haiti was also pretty devastating: the traumatic experiences and the partying, the drug and alcohol use. I misspent all this grant money, which almost got me incarcerated. It was just a little volatile. No infrastructure and long periods of isolation, speaking only Creole. With all this craziness, I felt a loss of identity and an exclusion from society. All sorts of shit started to weigh on me. It kind of plateaued in this like mental earthquake and so I left.

I went back to my mom’s house and I set up a studio there and started making work. I started pulling little pieces of my life together, which eventually became the shrine that’s on display at the current exhibition. It reflects what I see and do. I started making cut-out paintings inspired by Haitian techniques. There was a boutique at the hospital that I always felt connected to. When I was young, I saw this cut-out Haitian Mickey Mouse in a tuxedo and I thought that was so fresh — characters that I was so connected to, recreated over there and kind of like manipulated. I always liked a bizarre shift or perversion. That’s always what I look for and love in my work too.

Art made from fruit and flowers by Nick Atkins

You mentioned that Harp’s narrative is a reflection of themes in your life. Can you expand on that a bit more?
A lot of it has to do with drug addiction and use. The majority of it comes from an ache concerning our connection to the Earth and what we’re doing to it — and I know I’m a part of this myself; I can barely get myself to recycle. It’s like I’ll go out and say I’m not drinking and then I drink. And harmful things like plastic use feel like an addiction to me. Saying that I’m going to try to just drink out of a metal water bottle, but then I catch myself getting all this plastic shit and plastic bags.

This feeling of helplessness extends past me, extends into the world, into government, into society. The main thing that I think I can do is to take some of that uncomfortableness and try and turn it into some of the art. That impact, if it’s positive, is really all I can do. I want to try, little by little, to become connected, to go back to where we came from. You know, personally, where things started to take a turn, trying to reel it in a bit and from that try to expel some joy where old people or young people at the show say, “Hey I loved that so much.” Just trying to turn all of these negative feelings around.

There’s a hopelessness but also a kind of willful ignorance in our society. Are you hoping to bring about awareness with your work or more just reflect and commiserate?
It’s blissfully ignorant it seems. Like people might not even know what they’re engaging in. People would rather not know. I’m still working it all out my damn self. People in society, I have no real bearing on them. All I can do is take these frustrations and turn it into something that they can at least say, “Oh that was a beautiful moment.” Or if they purchase it, then their children get to see it in their houses for a long time. Whether they understand where it came from or not, that beauty is what I can contribute. Any kind of changes socially or environmentally, all I can do is do it for me. I would never say, “Hey society. I’m an artist. You should do this. You should do that.” I basically shattered my brain from age 12 to age 33, so I’m just trying to reorganize it and reassess how I want to live my life — how life is and how I want to navigate through it.